The Catholic Conscience at Santa Clara University

Ten days ago, Santa Clara University hosted, “Conscience and Catholicism: Rights, Responsibilities, and Institutional Policies,” the brain child of David DeCosse, Director of Campus Ethics at the University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Kristin Heyer of the Religious Studies Department and DeCosse together invited 15 presenters from 7 countries (Argentina, India, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Philippines, and the US).

The presentations touched on fundamental themes and cases.  Japan’s Osamu Takeuchi, for instance, touched on conscience as the embodiment of Japanese responsibility to God, community and oneself, while Archbishop John Quinn took us through Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk and Ireland’s Linda Hogan addressed conscience in debate reminding us that “regardless of how deeply held are our views, each person has an obligation to engage in debate in a manner that upholds rather than corrodes the integrity of the polity.”

Some of the cases were riveting.  Using John Courtney Murray’s work on religious freedom, Sr. Eugine Rodrigues discussed long-termed opposition by Catholics to India’s anti-conversion laws.  Emilce Cuda presented the case of Argentina’s civil code on marriage equality and the debate between Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s and President Cristina Kirchener.  Bryan Massingale looked at the institutional response of his own Milwaukee diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald to the protests of the people of Ferguson.

Behind all the cases and themes were institutions: health care facilities, national legislatures, newspapers, universities, and civic organizations.  Yet, in each paper the church and its conscientious yearnings inevitably appeared in the teaching of church leaders, in the arguments of theologians and catechists, and in the abiding presence of the sensus fidelium.

What was most striking about our little international seminar is that we ethicists have similar concerns and interests: is primacy of conscience absolute, how to defend religious freedom, do the consciences of minorities get overlooked, do institutions have consciences, are the church’s interests its peoples’ consciences?  Hoping that others share our interests, we are publishing our papers with Orbis Press in the coming year.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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